Coastal Elites is an HBO special written by Paul Rudnick and directed by Jay roach, starring Bette Midler, Kaitlyn Dever, Dan Levy, Sarah Paulson, and Issa Rae. Each actor gives a monologue straight to the camera in this socio-political satire. Each monologue takes place in progressive months over the course of 2020 so far as their subjects broach the most daunting and pressing politics and social realities of our time. Each performance is spectacular and powerfully emotional, and each act on their own is an excellent study of the shortcomings in coastal elite attitudes towards the 2016 and 2020 elections, diversity, Trumpism, and COVID-19. However, Coastal Elites as a whole feels, much like 2020 itself, like it is just doing too much at once.
Bette Midler starts the show off with “Lock Her Up.” She plays an older, NPR tote-bag-carrying Jewish woman being interviewed by the police after an incident with a MAGA hat-wearing man in a Starbucks. The satire is thick and overt in this act, with some truly serious and upsetting points about the fate of Hillary Clinton. The obvious absurdity juxtaposed to the devastatingly serious and tragic parts provide a novel microcosm of the nuance with which the show seems to ask its viewers to understand the emotions and circumstances 2020 has begotten.
Unfortunately, this scene agitated me because of its incessant reliance on Jewish tropes and the characters pointing them out. It just didn’t feel like any New York Jew I’ve ever known would ever say half the things she said, even in the most stereotypical of circumstances. It cut close to making her Jewishness the satire itself rather than her naive liberal approach to solving problems with theater and culture. Her apparent wealth feels like its a bit construed with her Jewishness, and her wealth is part of the apparent satire. It’s just not a great look. The monologue was also just a bit too long.
Dan Levy‘s scene, “Supergay” follows an actor who, just as the pandemic is beginning in March, is speaking with a new therapist about a role he recently auditioned for. The role is the first gay superhero to lead a blockbuster, tentpole film. In a dramatic shift in the subject, this monologue satires the way Hollywood treats gay characters. It’s a very well-delivered and impactful monologue that gets satire just right. It simultaneously pokes holes in the absurdity of Hollywood’s portrayal of gay characters and treatment of gay actors while also being self-aware enough to recognize the one delivering the message is himself a big and growing television star.
In “The Blonde Cloud,” Issa Rae is having a conversation with an old friend about a bizarre encounter she had with Ivanka Trump (and her father). Rae’s character’s father, a prominent Black businessman, is invited to meet with the president. And while he is an ardent non-supporter, he feels he can’t refuse the invitation. So he invites Rae’s character along too since, after all, she and Ivanka were classmates in boarding school.
This monologue is the one that most clearly screams “coastal elite.” It’s almost excessive in its obvious satire of the way class solidarity triumphs over race, politics, and values. I don’t hate the skit, because Issa Rae performs well and there are a few poignant moments, but it felt the most out of place for how overt its satire was. If only it had stood on its own, or perhaps been placed alongside other monologues that more closely fit the “coastal elite” moniker. “Supergay,” while about Hollywood, felt more like a satire about Hollywood. Levy’s character wasn’t a caricature or much of a coastal elite himself. Rae’s character was the epitome of it.
Yet, at the same time, “The Blonde Cloud” often feels simply like a righteous condemnation of everything the president and his family stands for and has done in recent months. It’s impactful, but also feels odd coming from a character you’re not necessarily meant to like or trust.
Sarah Paulson‘s Coastal Elites scene, “Because I Have To Tell Someone,” is honestly a bit patronizing. It leans heavily into the manic mode so many people have fallen into during the pandemic by showing a frantic woman with awkward green screen backgrounds trying to run an online mediation. I don’t really appreciate the way that it skips satire and goes right to making fun of people who are trying to cope with the impossible in ways that might appear frenetic. I also don’t appreciate the way it completely stereotypes people from rural areas.
The story it tells is about Paulson’s character’s Trump-supporting family and the way her father eventually breaks through his unfeeling shell to admit that he hates the man’s guts and will absolutely not be voting for him despite the embarrassment he feels in the presence of the rest of his deeply committed family. There are some really heavy and impactful moments, for certain. It just goes on a bit too long and ultimately feels like it isn’t really grappling with anything thoughtful about coastal elite attitudes towards Trump supporters. In fact, it just feels like one giant elitist portrayal of them.
But again, like the scenes before it, it still manages to reflect something in our current moment of crises and intensity that makes the ending impactful, even if the journey to get there was a bit arduous and occasionally unwelcome.
It’s Kaitlyn Dever‘s closing monologue, “President Miriam,” that makes the entire show worth watching. She plays a nurse who came to New York City from the Midwest to help during the peak of the pandemic. It’s all about her encounter with an older woman named Miriam who, simply, was unlike any other human being her sheltered self had ever encountered. It dives into the tragedy of the pandemic and its human toll and the absolute embarrassment that has befallen our nation under the current president.
I am crying again just thinking about the absolute tragedy that is this monologue. I was inconsolable for the rest of the night. And its ending is absolutely not what you expect from the beginning. But it lifts you up only to absolutely devastate you, and then reignite with one last breath of hope, whatever strain of it you may have left, after enduring the previous hour and a half, the previous eight months, and the previous four years. Dever is incredible in this scene as it epitomizes every ounce of emotional turmoil this year has delivered us.
Like all of 2020, Coastal Elites does too many things at once to ultimately do most of them well. It tackles so many different topics within each of its five monologues that, while in real life we have no choice but to cope with all of the incredibly challenging realities befallen us, in an HBO special it simply becomes too much to follow. All of the performances are excellent, but the only scene that stands out as truly excellent is Kaitlyn Dever’s closing act. The rest is mostly decent but not anything special. Watch it for Dever’s scene alone, though the rest is worth your time well enough.
Coastal Elites is streaming now on HBO.
All of the performances are excellent, but the only scene that stands out as truly excellent is Kaitlyn Dever’s closing act. The rest are mostly decent but not anything special. Watch it for Dever’s scene alone, though the rest is worth your time well enough.